I have been a publisher since the early ‘70s and have never experienced such a decline in the book trade as in the first half of this year, which I believe threatens the very fabric of our cultural heritage. People seem to have lost interest in the written word and have switched their attention to more mundane matters, triggered off perhaps by the instability of the political scene throughout the world.
Reading my Sunday newspapers last weekend I came across a most telling news item which confirmed my notion that books are in crisis everywhere. In Paris, Bouquinistes are appealing for UNESCO status to avoid being swamped by traders selling tourists trinkets. Described as the keepers of the ‘biggest open-air bookshop in the world,’ these are the booksellers who ply their trade along the Seine. They are asking to obtain UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status. With their trademark dark-green stalls on the parapets overlooking the river, the bouquinistes have a rich history of selling second-hand tomes all the way back to the sixteenth century.
Some made their fortunes by selling the libraries of guillotined aristocrats during the French Revolution, others braved death by passing on messages from the French Resistance in books during the city’s occupation by the Nazis. But after surviving centuries of censorship, political turmoil and floods, they face a new threat: a tide of plastic Eiffel Towers, love-locks and other tourist knick-knacks.
In theory, the trade is strictly regulated. Each bouquiniste is allowed 4 boxes, three must contain books, and the fourth can sell anything from prints and collector’s fashion magazines to old postcards and souvenirs. Yet a quick stroll on the Right and Left Banks suggest this rule is wildly flouted, as many stands near tourist sites like Notre-Dame and St Michel are crammed full of Chinese-made keyrings and ‘I Love Paris’ bags.
‘If we wait any longer it will be too late, the trinket markets will have consumed the booksellers completely,’ said Jerome Callais, president of the Cultural Association of Paris Bouquinistes, who is spearheading the drive for UNESCO status. He is one of just three self-professed diehards among 237 bouquinistes who sell books only. ‘We are as important as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Montmartre. People come from far and wide to see these sites, but also us. But some of my colleagues think the writing’s on the wall, that we are the last generation.’ Recently he received the backing of the Paris Town Hall which voted to send a request to the Culture ministry for the booksellers to be considered for UNESCO Intangible Heritage status. France can only put forward one request every two years and competition is fierce.
Florence Berthout, mayor of the 5th arrondisemnt said: ‘UNESCO Heritage Status would shine a light on an activity that shapes the intellectual identity of Paris and participates in the French cultural exception.’ Not all bouqinistes back the idea though. Many fear that an ensuing restriction on selling non-literary items could kill them off. ‘We can’t live of books alone,’ said Ghillaine Thibaud, a bouqiniste for 30 years, who said sales had nose-dived amid stiff competition from online dealers and changing tastes. ‘When times are hard an extra few Euros from a photo or bag can stop us from going under.’
And one despondent vendor, Andres Brisson, said: ‘If I sell one book per day, it’s already a lot. I sell more pictures and trinkets. I frankly think the best thing to do would be to let bouquinistes die out and leave the space open so people can make the most of the area and get a better view of the Seine.’
It’s obvious that books are in crisis. The trend is unfortunately downwards. As publishers we must, however, fight back and ensure that we publish better books and convince readers that we need their support. For without it, we are doomed. On the other hand, their intellect would help the nation prosper.